When Helmut Lang asked Maurice Roucel to create a fragrance for him, the designer gave the perfumer a very specific brief: “He said he wanted it to have the smell that the partner who slept with him left behind on the linen sheets,” says Roucel, who has made scents for Guerlain, Hermès and Gucci.
To create an olfactory impression of dishevelled sheets and lingering sweat, Roucel blended several ingredients, the most important of which was an expensive synthetic musk, a factory-built substitute for a substance that, in nature, is produced by musk deer. The use of the real thing, which comes from a gland near the musk deer’s rectum, is for the most part banned because the animal is an endangered species. But Roucel has been in the business long enough to have worked with the original. “It is absolutely disgusting on the top note—shit, urine,” he says. “But after the top note has gone, you have something that is extremely sensual, like the smell of young skin, and very erotic.”
The naked truth
The proximity of the attractive to the revolting is never closer than in the smell of skin: If the best smell in the world is the crown of a newborn’s head, one of the worst is the stale body odour of the person in the economy seat next to you on a transatlantic flight. The smell of skin can have delicious connotations—the sensual pleasure of being close to ones you love—and it can have off-putting ones, too, like the irreducible odour of decay and mortality. “We have this aversion to the actual smell of our bodies, but at the same time we find that this is a very sexual kind of thing as well,” says Rachel Herz, an adjunct professor of psychiatry and human behaviour at Brown University who specialises in the psychology of smell.
What we smell as skin isn’t, in fact, pure, unadulterated epidermis. Skin scents, of the good or bad variety, are caused by the action of microbes upon our flesh and whatever we have ingested. The essence of a skin scent, what perfumers frequently refer to as “warm-skin smell,” isn’t unadorned human, either. According to French perfumer Frédéric Malle, it’s a smell that mingles with its wearer, so that you don’t know where the fragrance begins and the skin ends. “It becomes a part of the skin, just as salt becomes part of the food you add it to,” he says.
Ingredients that help convey this kind of sensuality, such as musk, have been used in perfumes for centuries. But today’s scents, which by necessity use synthetic musk, are less raw than earlier fragrances, says Olivier Polge, a perfumer who has made scents for Viktor & Rolf, Chanel and Balenciaga. So-called animalic notes—not just musk but civet musk and amber—are less desirable today. “We do use certain notes that have a dirty undertone, but the evolution of taste is away from that,” Polge says. “I think we are very far away from our animal side, which is too bad.”
Sense of smell
Ideas about what skin should smell like vary among cultures. Because the language that we use to convey smell is more impressionistic than the language of, say, touch or taste, smells are described in ways that are heavily influenced by cultural expectations. “If Americans love a scent, they will describe it as fresh and clean and natural,” says Trudi Loren, SVP of fragrance development for the Estée Lauder Companies. “The same scent, if a French woman likes it, she will describe as sensual. And if a German likes it, she will call it elegant and sporty.” Geza Schoen, a German perfumer, explains that in his native language there is an idiom that expresses the way in which a person’s smell encapsulates their essence: “We say ‘Ich kann ihn nicht gut riechen’—‘I cannot smell him’—to mean that we don’t feel comfortable with someone, we don’t click with them.”
Out in the open
Where the first skin scents were heavy, seductive musks, today’s enhance the smell of your skin rather than covering it. They “are a little bit more introverted, as opposed to an extroverted demonstration of scent,” says Loren. “It is not projecting 20 feet away from you, not the fragrances of the ’80s that entered the room before you did. These stay closer to your body, on your person.” Schoen has a line of perfumes containing only one note instead of a range of them. The company’s first scent, Escentric Molecules Molecule 01, spotlighted Iso E Super, which has a velvety, soft cedar-wood aroma that is also used in perfumes such as Hermès Poivre Samarcande and Kenzo Air. When worn on its own, Iso E Super combines with the natural odour of the body to powerful effect. (A contributor to one online forum for perfume aficionados wrote that Iso E Super is “the pajamas of my girl on the morning after.”) The idea of wearing Molecule 01, Schoen says, is not to mask the smell of the body, or to substitute an idealised version of the smell of skin for the real thing. “I think in general, perfume should always be close to the smell of skin,” Schoen says. “This is where we wear it, and it needs to fit.” The standard of what we like should not be fruits and coconuts and flowers, he says, but “notes that support the natural aura of our body smell—that smell like skin, hair, the intimate area.”
That suggestion of sexual intimacy—impending or accomplished—is central to the success of the best fragrances of the past and present, says Malle: “A sexy fragrance is one that says, ‘I smell like that when I am naked.’” (After all, Marilyn Monroe made Chanel No. 5 seem impossibly sexy when she told a reporter that the scent was all that she wore to bed.) One scent that Roucel developed for Malle’s own line of perfumes, Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle, is called Dans Tes Bras, which means “in your arms.” It was intended to evoke not the smell of one skin alone but of one skin enfolded in another, perhaps even within linen sheets, like Helmut Lang’s fantasy. “When you have two skins close to one another, then you have a peculiar smell coming up,” Malle says. “When you wear something like that, basically it’s a call for action.”
Here are a list of some our favourite musky skin scents that are seductive and subtle.
Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 EDP
Burberry Body EDP
Byredo Elevator Music EDP
Costume National So Nude EDP
Frederic Malle Dans De Bras EDP
Glossier You EDP
Masion Margiela Replica Lazy Sunday Morning EDT
Tom Ford White Suede EDP